Leadership Succession and Sustainable Improvement

Promoting stability by distributing duties, networking across district lines and professional coaching of administrator newcomers by ANDY HARGREAVES

Constantly under the gun, superintendents and their principals are pressured today to generate short-term results … or else.

The consequences for failure include threatened closures of schools, external interventions, and loss of students, budgets and staff to competing charter schools. Most of all, administrators’ jobs are on the line.

Everything in K-12 education is instant, short-term, the quick fix. As such, little attention is paid to long-term planning and even less to leadership succession or stability. The change agenda is the leadership agenda and from the very top, both are being mismanaged.

Andrew HargreavesAndy Hargreaves, a professor at Boston College, has written widely on the role of education leadership in sustaining improvements in elementary and secondary education in several nations.

More and more, I am seeing this with my own eyes in my studies of education reform and its impact on schools. In Sustainable Leadership, Dean Fink, a former superintendent, and I show how multiple changes over long periods of time and across several leaders affect schools and undermine most efforts at sustainable improvement.

Our evidence reveals how improvement in some schools often was achieved at the expense of their neighbors. Sustainable success has to be measured across entire systems, not in an isolated school or two, and it has to be judged in the long term, across multiple principals and superintendents, not just during the brief tenures of individual leaders.

In The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change, Dennis Shirley, a professor of education at Boston College, and I describe our recent research on highly successful school districts, networks and countries to unearth more positive examples of leadership success and sustainability and their relationship to achievement results. Consider a few examples.

Succession Matters
An urban high school in the Northeast had been the shining star of the school district. Then, a magnet school opened nearby and lured away most aspiring families and their students. When another high school in the district closed under pressure from the magnet, the district transferred in leftover students and the special education department mushroomed from three to more than 20 teachers. Teachers felt neglected, their spirits and perform-ance sank, and eventually the school was designated as “in need of improvement.”

A tough new principal was sent in to turn the school around. His forceful methods led teachers to seek protection from their union and work strictly to the contract. A successor had to be brought in quickly, someone who would stand up to the union, but the union’s resistance became even stronger, and soon he had to leave, as well. Leader followed autocratic leader while unionized teachers just dug in deeper. The school’s capacity to respond to its changing population didn’t improve.

Across the border in Ontario, Canada, an elementary school visited by our research team is one of many that dramatically raised student achievement results in literacy. All the school’s teachers care about all the students, not just those in their class or grade. They look at each child’s progress on the data wall that’s posted for everyone to see. The energies of all building staff are focused on moving these students along and lifting them up academically. Special education teachers help all students who need it, not just those who have been formally identified.

The teachers at this school know they have done most of the heavy lifting. But in the end, they attribute the success to the principal who has taken them somewhere, they say. When the subject of her impending retirement is raised, teachers’ voices quiver and their eyes fill with tears. What will happen when she leaves them? Will her successor maintain the existing momentum or take things in a completely different direction?

One of the most significant events in the life of a school is when it undergoes a change in leadership. Inspiring leaders often lift their schools, only to see the gains disappear when mediocre successors follow them. Heroic leaders may perform miracles in turning schools around, but often no broader capacity exists to maintain the improvements after the leaders have gone. Urban superintendents can keep changing the building leader in a desperate effort to revive a struggling school, but teachers just become more cynical and entrenched as they realize their leaders won’t last.

If we want to make change for good and change for keeps, then we have to pay much more attention to leadership succession.

Five Challenges
Five obstacles stand in the way of effective leadership succession.

Succession is poorly planned. When a leader gets promoted, retires early or has to leave in a hurry, superintendents are often taken by surprise. They have no prior plan about what kind of person should follow, so they commence a search and hiring process completely from scratch or transfer in someone who happens to be available. Succession planning is usually a reactive event rather than a pro-active process.

Succession transitions are badly managed. Leadership succession is full of exits and entrances. Yet the system has no consistent approach to these. In The Succession Challenge, Fink analyzes succession practices in three districts in the United States, England and Canada. He finds that exit and entry strategies are occasional and at the discretion of the incumbent principals. One principal described how his predecessor “gave me three big bunches of keys, told me the combinations to all the door locks and gave me a list of parents who would cause me grief, and that was it.”

Succession is often on the wrong frequency. Many principals leave or are transferred long before their work is done and before it has become embedded in the hearts and minds of everyone. When these principals look back on their careers, what they see is a trail of broken legacies. “It’s a pity they appointed the wrong person after me,” they say. Or “soon after I’d gone, all the best people left!”

Some superintendents try to combat this problem by rotating their principals among schools on a regular cycle of five years or so. They believe this enables them to put the right principal with the necessary skill sets in the appropriate school at the right time. Unfortunately, though, not all principals are equally stellar, and some schools end up with mediocre or even poor replacements. Moreover, as the most skeptical teachers watch this carousel of principal rotation, they learn they can easily wait these leaders out.

Succession planning fails to consider the emotional aspects. The leaving of leadership is a rehearsal for the leaving of life. Few want to step out of the limelight and give up the job. This makes it hard for departing leaders to find and prepare successors or, conversely, draws these leaders into grooming successors who remind them of themselves.

Most systems provide little or no coaching or support to help principals work through these emotional aspects of leadership succession.

Succession is not treated as a systemic problem. Succession is usually treated as a way to replace one person with another. But succession is also a systemic problem and opportunity. Will a principal’s transfer to another school steal capacity from the one he or she is leaving, or will it create opportunities to develop more leadership behind him or her? Should a school try to develop its own future leaders or should schools, and even districts, develop leaders for each other?

Leadership is a system, not a pipeline. Decisions in one place affect decisions in another. Successful succession is about growing and connecting leadership throughout a system, not just finding the right fit for individual leaders.

Four Opportunities
Leadership succession is one of the most important but overlooked factors that affect sustainable school improvement. Just as year-upon-year successions of outstanding teachers can dramatically improve the achievements of even the most disadvantaged students, an orderly succession of superb principals can profoundly improve the most highly challenged schools. Yet mismanagement of succession frequently wreaks havoc on the chances for long-term improvement.

Additional Resources

Editorial contributors on leadership succession suggested these print and electronic resources on the subject. Additional resources are available on the magazine’s webpage at www.aasa.org.

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So what are the alternatives? Here are four possibilities.

•  Increase leadership stability. One obvious way to minimize negative successions is to limit the number of succession events. One of the key components of sustainability is leadership stability.

If you find a great principal or superintendent for an especially challenging community, do everything you can to keep him or her there. One reason why Boston Public Schools won the prestigious Broad Prize for the best urban school district in 2006 was because its superintendent, Tom Payzant, stayed there 10 years. This was due to the unswerving moral dedication of his team and himself to the city’s students, the quality of resource support surrounding him, his capacity to demonstrate short-term results consistent with long-term goals and the external resources he was able to procure to enhance the system’s work.

•  Build systemic leadership. In 2006, England’s National College for School Leadership introduced a unique National Leaders of Education Program. More than 100 outstanding principals, who have shown proven success in assisting other schools, work closely with struggling partners who approach them to improve learning and results.

These leaders do not take over the struggling schools, nor do they send in a team with checklists and quick hit-and-run tactics. Instead, the principal and a team of highly trained support staff roll up their sleeves and work with and alongside the school’s teachers and administrators to make improvements together. As the existing staff builds capacity and the schools show signs of turning around, the national leaders and their teams gradually withdraw. Significant achievement gains have been recorded in the many schools that have participated, and the program is expanding rapidly to meet rising demand.

Similar strategies of systemic leadership exist elsewhere. In Ontario, steady increases in performance are partly a result of networking strong schools with weaker performing peers across districts. This provides significant career development for existing school leaders and it develops distributed capacity and lines of succession within their original schools (replacement costs are provided by the province), so their own schools can continue without them while they are away.

The U.S. Department of Education’s “race to the top” strategy represents a massive opportunity for superintendents to collaborate with each other within states to secure resources to create similar strategies of systemic leadership, allowing schools to help each other lift achievement. Banding together is also one of the best answers to the growing challenge of charter-school expansion. 

•  Develop distributed leadership. The Canadian province of Alberta is the world’s second highest jurisdiction on the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests of student performance. In Alberta, 2 percent of the education budget is allocated to 90 percent of schools for designing their own local innovations and improvements.

An evaluation report commissioned by the Alberta government titled “The Learning Mosaic” analyzes the province’s innovation and improvement strategies in K-12 education. Part of the review, issued in September, examined three school districts. Two of the districts defined what the innovation priority would be for all their schools and linked it to provincial policy. They spent resources on outside trainers who ran workshops related to the priorities. A small number of teachers were promoted to full-time consultants in the district office to coordinate the project.

On paper, the focus was common, but the schools had little knowledge of what each other was doing. Communication went up and down from the district office where the leadership was concentrated.

In the more effective, third district, schools developed innovations that were genuinely their own. Cohesion was secured not by top-down alignment but by funding schools to meet regularly with and learn from each other. Coordination was achieved by many teachers who stayed in their schools, close to their practice, with modest amounts of release time to support their teacher leadership.

All this interaction meant the superintendent knew the names of 70 percent of the staff in the district and was greatly trusted by them. Leadership responsibility works best when it is spread out and interconnected, not dependent on a few individuals. Paradoxically, this requires confident and secure leaders at the top. Top-down change produces a line of scarce successors. Networked change creates broad and rich cultures of distributed leadership and succession from below.

•  Create coaches for new leaders. With the rapid generational turnover in education leadership, more and more principals and superintendents are first-time leaders. Succession events are emotionally stressful for everyone, but they are especially challenging for newcomers.

A good coach can help newcomers through this. The New Teacher Center at University of California in Santa Cruz, Calif., has adapted its pioneering work on new-teacher mentoring to coaching for new leaders in a strategy that has spread across the country. The novel feature of their program is that coaches come from outside the school district in which they do their coaching work. They are committed but dispassionate supporters of their new leaders, operating with complete

Without fear of reprisal, new principals can openly disclose difficulties that accompany entering the school or the role and learn to deal with these problems more quickly. This increases the success of many successions.

A Strategic Challenge
Lasting improvement rarely exists without leadership stability or successful succession. Effective succession is a strategic challenge but not an insurmountable one.

Leadership succession can be enhanced by promoting stronger leadership stability wherever there is existing success through inspiring missions and supportive conditions that keep leaders where they are; by distributing leadership more widely within and across schools rather than concentrating it in the principal’s or the district office; by banding together with other superintendents to connect schools across districts in robust networks of leadership assistance and support; and by providing confidential coaching support for all new leaders — principals and superintendents alike.

It’s hard enough for improvement efforts to be successful. Through better succession, they can also become more sustainable.

Andy Hargreaves is the Brennan chair in education at Boston College. E-mail: hargrean@bc.edu. He is the co-author with Dennis Shirley of The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change (Corwin 2009).